Stelio Frati Flips Over
by Mary Wilder
Antonello Gattai and Duane Root
The Falco is almost finished. It’s hard to believe four and a half years of almost constant work. I am in awe of anyone who would take on such a task. I have watched this “work of art and passion” throughout those years as Duane, my best friend and during the last two years also as my husband has thrown himself heart and soul into this “project.” It is finally coming to fruition as he installs the interior with great excitement.
When Duane first showed me the construction plans I thought he must be crazy. What a task to take on. But knowing his ability to stay focused, almost to an obsessive state, if anyone could complete it, he would. What I didn’t realize is how much admiration and respect I would gain for him over the years.
When we decided to get married a little over two years ago, we started looking for houses that would be a nice fit for a blended family of six as well as a garage that would accommodate building the Falco. Since Duane had started the tail and fuselage in a small one-car garage in his previous house, we needed something quite a bit larger for the wingspan.
Even though our new home has a two-and-a-half car garage, he still needed to cut a large and fairly deep hole in the cement to stand the fuselage on end in order to build the wing. Needless to say our new neighbors wondered what kind of people moved into their quiet little neighborhood.
Antonello Gattai has a swimming pool built in the shape of a Falco.
We received some incredulous stares as we moved the tail out to the hangar at the airport. You just don’t see pieces of planes riding around in the back of a pickup truck in the city very often. Soon we’ll be moving the fuselage and wing on the back of a flatbed truck with much help from family and friends. I can only imagine the looks!
The Falco has expanded our friendships as well. We were fortunate enough to have gone to Italy in June and met some wonderful people because of the commonality of the Falco. First in Tuscany, we met Antonello Gattai, who is the owner of the oldest Falco flying. It’s the second production Falco built back in 1956. We were able to visit him at his villa and stay for lunch. He has a beautiful bed and breakfast accommodation with all rooms named after planes designed by Dr. Stelio Frati. He also has a swimming pool built in the shape of a Falco!
A few days later we arrived by train in Milan where Ernesto Valtorta, one of the kindest men you could ever meet, picked us up to take us to visit with Dr. Frati. Initially Dr. Frati had not been feeling too well. His knee had been bothering him, but he was so gracious to accept our visit anyway. I only wish that we understood Italian better to make our communication easier.
Mary Wilder, Duane Root and Stelio Frati
What an honor to meet the designer of the Falco at his office in Milan. He was so kind, giving us gifts and signing Duane’s glove compartment door with “Buoni Voli” [happy flying], Stelio Frati.
We also met Napoleon, his beloved cat, who after tripping Dr. Frati was actually the cause of his knee discomfort.
Because of the admiration and esteem I have for Dr. Frati, I am not entirely comfortable describing the next events of the day….
When we left for Italy, Duane had me read the article that Alfred had written about his ride with Dr. Frati. When he picked us up at the train station, we told Ernesto that we weren’t totally comfortable with the idea of getting in a car with Dr. Frati behind the wheel. So when we were told that we were going to visit an airplane factory with Ernesto and Dr. Frati, our eyes widened. Seeing our reaction, Ernesto told Dr. Frati of our ‘slight’ fear of riding with him, so they decided to take separate cars. Then I was afraid that we might be offending this very nice man and with high gas prices it seemed wasteful. So, I told Ernesto to tell Dr. Frati that we were really okay about riding with him.
Ernesto Valtorta, Duane Root and Stelio Frati
We didn’t realize that we were actually riding out of Milan to Asti, which is about an hour and a half away. To say that Italians are aggressive drivers is an understatement! I tend to get carsick somewhat easily. The constant quick acceleration and sharp braking gets my stomach and head spinning. It’s not that Dr. Frati drives any different than any other Italian in that regard, it’s just that being in the backseat of his 1988 Audi was a little nauseating for both Duane and me.
Anyway, the ride was really fun in that we were able to witness these two Italian men in the front seat, so animated, gesturing with their hands and their voices getting excited as to how to get to the factory. The autostrada was a very fast drive to say the least! Then into the countryside heading to Asti, where the factory was located. We were driving on winding roads through beautiful vineyards when it happened.
While we were negotiating some hairpin turns, Dr. Frati went straight, right into one of the vineyards. The car careened through the vineyard and rolled into a grassy ditch on its side, only to be stopped short by a cement block that came out of nowhere.
The two Italians were somewhat stunned, and they wondered about the smoke that was coming in through the vents. Duane spoke up to say that the car needed to be turned off quickly. We extricated ourselves vertically from the wreckage with some help from nice landowners.
As he pulled himself from the car, Dr. Frati said “I hope Alfred Scott never hears about this!”
Only bruised and a little battered, we all stood in disbelief as the mortally wounded Audi was pulled from the ditch by a quick responding tow truck. The car was totalled.
Dr. Frati was throwing his arms in the air pointing to the cement block. He was sure that if it had not popped up out of nowhere, he could have made it back onto the road. Not!
Duane was beaming with excitement that we had actually been in an accident with Dr. Frati in the beautiful Italian countryside, saying “Wow, what an adventure!” I could have kicked him.
We asked Dr. Frati if he was feeling okay, and he said that his knee actually felt better!
His main concern was that if Alfred Scott found out, he would have a heyday with the story. In fact, we were not going to tell Alfred, but he was so happy to hear that we had actually gotten to meet with Dr. Frati, his enthusiasm got us going and soon we were divulging information like suspects in a police interrogation. Dr. Frati, as you read this, please know that we love you and would be happy to ride with you againjust maybe not to Asti.
[Mr. Frati, I’m glad to hear that you all came through this unharmed, and I hope you don’t mind Mary’s account of this unfortunate accident. It just seems like a little bit of Falco history here.Alfred Scott]
Stelio Frati, Duane Root at the airplane factory.
We rented a car, and when we finally arrived at the airplane factory, Dr. Frati was right back at work. The factory workers stood in admiration and with full attention as Dr. Frati explained why they were having problems with the aerodynamics of their airplane and how they could correct them.
Later that evening we arrived back in Milan hoping to take Ernesto and Dr. Frati to dinner for providing us with such an entertaining day. Dr. Frati respectfully declined as he had enough excitement for the day. As he walked off pondering what his next vehicle might be, we joined Ernesto for dinner. He took us back to our hotel and then the next morning, even though he doesn’t live in Milan, drove all the way back to the city to deliver us to the airport. What endearing people the Italians are!
When we came home from Italy, Duane went to work on the nose gear doors, not having an easy time of it. Finally after many adjustments they fit, and I watched several times as he raised and lowered the landing gear, always with a smile on his face. He then went to work on the adjustments for the windshield and canopy. I couldn’t count how many times we have taken that canopy on and off. I am always a little nervous.
Now in the final weeks of finishing the Falco, it’s down to what colors of paint does Duane want and how is it going to be transported. I am filled with excitement and some trepidation about his first flight, but I know how meticulous he has been, so that eases any nervousness I might have. I know that it is going to be a breathtaking and heartwarming moment when he is finally airborne.